Cynicism, Pessimism, Optimism, Realism, and Pragmatism

Genocide, injustice, brutality toward women, crime, poverty, epidemics; these are just a few of the many problems plaguing the world. How would you evaluate the trends? Would you say the world is going to hell in a handbasket (deteriorating rapidly)? Or do you see hopeful signs and are optimistic about the future? The answers to these questions depend on whether we’re pessimists, cynics, or optimists.

The pessimists are consumed by negative thinking and always foresee doom and gloom. Cynics cannot believe people act out of kindness or politicians and CEO’s can have the public’s best interest at heart. They mistrust others and expect the worst. Cynics and pessimists sometimes accuse optimists of wearing `pink colored glasses’ when, in fact, they are the ones wearing glasses. Not pink, but the black glasses of the blind. They are blind to all the good in the world.

But, of course, they don’t agree with me. According to them, an optimist is a person who doesn’t have all the facts; a pessimist is an optimist who does have all the facts, and a cynic is a pessimist who clearly understands the facts. Even George Bernard Shaw (1856~1950) supports their view, for he wrote, “The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.”

That was clever of Mr. Shaw, but not accurate or truthful because cynics and pessimists cannot see the good in the world, so how can their view be accurate? Realists, on the other hand, are open-minded. They see ALL, not just the bad. What about optimists? They also see both the good and the bad, but focus on the good and try to change the bad when possible.

It is to the realists and optimists that we must turn to in order to bring about positive change in the world. True, pessimists and cynics can be of service by calling attention to the problems of the world, for that’s all they look for and all they find. But I’m afraid, instead of offering solutions, they just wring their hands, whine in despair, and give up.

Pragmatists don’t view the world through the prism of religious morality. They don’t ask questions about what is good or evil. Rather, they ask about what works, what benefits us, and what will solve our problems. That’s why they become realists and optimists.


Cynicism is not our true nature. We are all born as optimists. Every step of a toddler’s shaky legs into the unknown is a step taken by an optimistic explorer, adventurer, and problem solver. That being said, why are there today so many cynics and pessimists?

A good part of the reason is the media. You see, we are inundated with negative news stories. Headlines shout, “Child murdered! Woman savagely raped! Villagers wiped out by terrorists!” Yes, they are just reporting the news, but the good news in underreported and the bad news is overreported. Remember, whether the media is TV, radio, or the press, it is a business. Their purpose is to make money, not to make you optimistic. And scary headlines draw attention. And now that modern technology brings the world’s news into every home, we’re exposed to horror stories without end, for there is always something horrible happening somewhere on earth.

If one newspaper headline was, “Boa constrictor devours baby!” and another was “Poverty rate declines by 12%,” which article would you read? Isn’t it odd that a story that affects the lives of thousands of families (the poverty rate) is ignored for a story that affects just one family?


There is a good chance that the news you have been bombarded with has convinced you the world is growing increasingly violent. But what are the facts? It is estimated that 30% of our ancient male ancestors in the hunter-gatherer societies had a violent death. In comparison, even including two world wars, the percentage of male violent deaths in the 20th century fell to 1%. Now, in the 21st century, the rate continues to fall.

The Human Security Centre at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia annually produces the Human Security Report. This project is funded by the governments of Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Here is a sample of their findings:

“Challenging the expert consensus that the threat of global terrorism is increasing, the Human Security Brief 2007 reveals a sharp net decline in the incidence of terrorist violence around the world. Fatalities from terrorism have declined by some 40 percent, while the loose-knit terror network associated with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda has suffered a dramatic collapse in popular support throughout the Muslim world.

“The Brief also describes and analyses (analyzes) the extraordinary, but largely unnoticed, positive change in sub- Saharan Africa’s security landscape. The number of conflicts being waged in the region more than halved between 1999 and 2006; the combat toll dropped by 98 percent.

“Finally, the Brief updates the findings of the 2005 Human Security Report, and demonstrates that the decline in the total number of armed conflicts and combat deaths around the world has continued. The number of military coups has also continued to decline, as have the number of campaigns of deadly violence waged against civilians.”

Are you beginning to see a different picture? Are you starting to find a reason to be hopeful and optimistic? But what about the greedy capitalists that caused the recent economic tailspin? Can we hope to find improvements in this area as well? Yes says Jason McCabe Calacanis (Founder of the Silicon Alley Reporter; chairman of The Weblogs, Inc. Network), for he writes:

“Capitalism is becoming more closely aligned with the forces of good (e.g., philanthropy) than with the forces of greed. As the polarization of wealth peaked, the press and public became obsessed with the `Greed is good’ meme in the eighties and the `Rules don’t apply to the Rich’ nineties (think Enron and Worldcom). However, the real story was brewing, and we read it first on Edge and witnessed it in Ted Turner’s gift to the United Nations.

“The most successful businesspeople in the world have decided to dedicate their brains and bank accounts to fixing the world, leaving politics and politicians on the sidelines. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, John Doerr, and Pierre Omidyar – among many others – are demonstrating that the true goal of winning is giving. The brass ring has moved from private aviation and mega-yachts to making a mega-pledge at Bill Clinton’s annual summit.”

Humanitarian, historian, and acclaimed international leader, George McGovern shares in the optimism for he said,  “It is simply untrue that all our institutions are evil, that all politicians are mere opportunists, that all aspects of university life are corrupt. Having discovered an illness, it’s not terribly useful to prescribe death as a cure.”


Left untreated, cynicism can have dire consequences, for as the electorate loses faith in politicians and the electoral process, they stop voting. And the declining number of mainstream voters opens the door for fringe or malevolent groups to show up at the polls and eventually win an election.

On June 3, 2006, in his Commencement Address at Knox College (Illinois), popular Stephen Colbert spoke out against cynicism, “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.”

As Oscar Wilde (1856~1900) pointed out, a cynic “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This makes him or her ungrateful, unhappy, and unproductive. And because of the mind- body connection, these negative emotions have a detrimental impact on the body. For example, Dr Nalini Ranjit, a Researcher from the University of Michigan headed a study of 6,814 people and found that cynical distrust was associated with signs of inflammation which in turn increase the risk of heart disease.


1. Practice critical thinking. We are in the habit of challenging the assumptions of others, but rarely, if ever, challenge our own. If you find yourself feeling cynical or pessimistic, stop and think things through. Ask yourself whether you wish to be a cynic, pessimist, realist, or optimist. Also ask yourself which choice will move you forward and which will hold you back.

2. An effective tool to fight negativity is to set lofty goals. Use your dreams to overcome cynicism. Working toward your goals will keep your mind off negative thoughts and inspire you. A simple example of a lofty goal is to make the world a better place by remaining cheerful and treating others with kindness and respect.

3. Study history, read biographies, and watch documentaries to discover what’s wonderful about the world and life. Also, the primary difference between pessimists and optimists is what they look for. Optimists look for goodness; find it, and attract others because of their cheerful disposition. Pessimists look for something to complain about or attack, and as a result, alienate others.

4. Study meditation. When you discover the beauty of the world within, you’ll awaken to the beauty of the outside world. After experiencing the peace of mind that meditation brings, you will be at peace with the world.

5. Be a realist; accept the good with the bad. The difficulties we have to face are merely the tickets or price we have to pay to gain admission to the adventure of life. For each problem you face, focus exclusively on its opportunities and solutions. Keep in mind we find what we look for, so as long as we look for the positive, we’ll find it.

6. Get involved in personal development. Develop your strengths and confidence. How can we believe in others unless we first believe in ourseves?

7. Choose your friends wisely. The good news is enthusiasm is contagious. The bad news is cynicism and pessimism are also contagious. So, unless you’re willing to risk contamination, stay away from grossly negative people.

8. Develop self-reliance. If you can depend on yourself, you’ll feel less pessimistic.

9. Understand that whatever happens TO you, happens BECAUSE OF you.

10. If hoodlums, thugs, and criminals can turn themselves around, so can you. 

11. A good deal of cynicism and pessimism occurs in the workplace. To cut down on it, avoid criticism and gossip. Don’t belittle, uplift; don’t tear down, build up; don’t discourage, encourage. Become a force for good.

12. Cynics and pessimists often like to take part in political and social protests. They define themselves by what they are against. Protesting against poverty, for example, is much easier than working hard to help those in need and to help the community eliminate the problem. Define yourself by what you believe in, commit yourself to it, and champion your cause with effective action, not empty words.

Let’s remember that the way things are is not the way things have to be. We can make the world a better place. One way of doing so is to join the army of optimists. And as we do so, perhaps all those we meet and work with will be bathed in our light, and we in their light.

Let’s especially be on the alert for young people who need our encouragement, for as Maya Angelou said, “There is nothing so pitiful as a young cynic because he has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing.” And General Douglas MacArthur continues, “In the central place of every heart there is a recording chamber; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, and courage, so long are you young. When the wires are all down and your heart is covered with the snows of pessimism and the ice of cynicism, and then only, are you grown old.”



How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness by Karen Salmansohn and Don Zinzell, Celestial Arts, 2001